Monday, 8 February 2010

(R)OVER AND OUT OF IRISH FOOTBALL

Irish traveller: Tadhg Purcell in action for Shamrock Rovers

Shamrock Rovers will no doubt be the unlikely toast of Darlington this weekend. No, the failed Republic of Ireland boss Steve Staunton didn't move his new 'Quakers' into the League of Ireland alongside Dublin's South-siders, but rather vice-versa. The League Two club's mid-season revival continued thanks to a strike from ex-Hoop Tadhg Purcell.

At first glance it looked to be a risky aquisition by 'Stan' who has been renowned for dropping the odd clanger in the past. Purcell is hardly the 'young prodigy' that he was prior to his move to Rovers in 2006. Here is a lad (25 tomorrow) with 26 goals in 104 games post-move from the now defunct Kilkenny City.

Spending much of last season in the shadows of Scottish strike sensation Gary Twigg (Player of the Year 2009), Purcell found first-team opportunities limited under ex-Northern Ireland and Glentoran stalwart Michael O'Neill.  No doubt a move was on the cards, and it looks like the lad has found his level in England's fourth tier of football.

A fantastic opportunity for the player, yet it was another sucker punch to the local game here that went relatively unnoticed in the local media... no surprises there then.  However, Purcell is not the first to fly the nest and certainly won't be the last should clubs find themselves in a continued state of financial mess.

IRISH FOOTBALL vs. FOOTBALL LEAGUE / SPL

The move furthers the notion that both the League of Ireland and Irish Premiership clubs in Ireland are at the same level as the English League Two.  There is the example of Tadhg Purcell who has walked into the Darlington with relative ease since his move across the Irish Sea.  Then there's the likes of Keith Fahey who doesn't look out of place at Birmingham City in the EPL, but realistically needs to drop down a division or two to really find his natural level. 

Both the Northern and Republic of Ireland sides have in the past boasted 'world-class' talent amongst their ranks.  But in a busy January transfer window for Irish internationals, could we be witnessing the downfall of that talent?  David Healy and Darryl Murphy were both relegated to Roy Keane's Ipswich Town.  Namesake Robbie was also sent packing on a six-month return ticket up to Glasgow to join the club he supported as a boy, Shamrock Rovers, Liverpool, Internazionale, Harchester United, Celtic. 

Keane's move would perhaps have been understandable had Celtic remained in European competition this season, but it will be be more St Johnstone than Paris St Germain for the Tallaght native.  Also, excluding the 'Old Firm' Scotland's Premier League is essence the English Championship.  So it is hardly ideal when the island's international 'stars' in Robbie Keane, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Aiden McGeady, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt ply their trade in what is essentially a second tier standard.

However, it does offer hope to local football.  League One in England was where Peter Thompson of Linfield and Andy Smith of Glentoran held their own for a short time.  Stuart Elliott was another who made a huge impact at Motherwell and Hull following his transfer from Glentoran.  At the moment we have Keith Fahey (St Pats Athletic) who continues to hold his own at Birmingham City and of course the latest Irish export to emerge as a real talent Tadhg Purcell (Shamrock Rovers) who is now finding his level at League Two Darlington.

INTERNATIONAL GAP

The gap between Irish club football and Irish international football is showing signs of closing.  Admittedly, not by much, but when you look at it logically it should come as no surprise.  The top clubs in Premier League clubs in England are looking to the continent and not Ireland for their next purchase.  Yes, there will always be the bright prospects from Ireland who will flood academy level, but the majority of these young propects tend to flutter down the divisions - and most return home to play locally.

Although sometimes it's not just the young apprentices returning to Irish football, it can also be a the 'last hurrah' ex-Irish internationals as high-profile players such as Keith Gillespie (Glentoran) and Johnny Giles (Rovers) would testify.  It's these kind of arrivals on the local stage that the kids look up to and raise the profile of the League of Ireland and Irish League... in the short-term.

It remains to be seen whether Irish football can create it's own high-profile footballers and remove that constant threat from the lure of lower league football in England.  Until then, expect more 'swan-songs' from our overpaid ex-internationals, whilst our limited talent are snapped up by the Stockport County and Darlington FC's of the world.

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